Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Utilitarian Religion and Self-Fulfillment

In the Gospel reading assigned for today in the Daily Office, we read John's account of the feeding of the five thousand. Apparently, Jesus' miracle made such an impression on those who witnessed it that "they were about to come and take [Jesus] by force to make him king" (John 6:15). It's kind of hard to blame them. After all, here's a guy who can guarantee that you never run out of food, someone you can rely on to supply your basic needs. And if he can do that, what else is he capable of? Might he also be capable of doing something decisive about living under Roman oppression? And what else that we want can Jesus supply?

We're told that when Jesus realized what the people were up to, "he withdrew again to a mountain by himself" (John 6:15). Jesus will not be forced into doing our bidding. He walks away from propping up our agendas on the warrant of his authority. He rejects being reduced to his utility value for us.

I'm reminded of James M. Gustafson's critique of "utilitarian religion" in Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume I: Theology and Ethics (University of Chicago Press, 1981):

The temptation of religion is always to put the Deity and the forces of religious piety in the service of the immediate needs and desires of individuals, small groups, and societies. ... Religion is put into the service not of gratitude, reverence, and service to God but of human interests, morally both trivial and serious. Religion - its theologies, its cultic practices, its rhetoric, its symbols, its devotions, becomes unwittingly justified for its utility value. God is denied as God; God becomes an instrument in the service of human beings rather than human beings instruments in the service of God (p. 25).

The human interests that put God and Jesus in our service include the understanding of religion as that which "helps us to be free and happy" (p. 20). Using religion to pursue our freedom and happiness as ultimate ends can take many forms, including the ways we push causes in an increasingly issue-driven and politicized Church. Power-plays eclipse theological discernment, while the voice (and votes) of the majority are said to unequivocally express the will of God.

I sometimes wonder how much of all of this is about the justice of the causes we pursue, and how much of it is about pursuing one of the highest values of our culture: self-fulfillment. And I wonder that, not only because of how politicized things are in the Church (often to the detriment of the common good), but also because of how over-personalized things are, as well. To disagree with those who hold a contrary view, and sometimes to even ask questions or express doubts, can be taken as a personal insult, a form of disrespect for who and what one is, and thus an assault on one's dignity as a human being. I often see signs of this "Church of the Ugly Party" in the Anglican blogosphere and on Facebook. And it's not confined to any one point along the theological spectrum.

When it comes to utilitarian religion and self-fulfillment, N. T. Wright makes an important observation:

We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church ... where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire. The implicit religion of many people today is simply to discover who they really are and then try to live it out - which is, as many have discovered, a recipe for chaotic, disjointed, and dysfunctional humanness. The logic of cross and resurrection, of the new creation which gives shape to all truly Christian living, points in a different direction [Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), pp. 233-234.]

I also find myself wanting a Christianity without sacrifice, discipleship without cost, and a faith that not only affirms my deepest yearnings and desires, but that also reflects my moral and political values without ever asking me to change. And I am guilty of trying to force Jesus to be king on my terms. I don't think I'm unique in that regard. We're all guilty as charged. It's not a liberal, or a conservative, or a centrist problem; it's a human problem. But the solution to that problem cannot be found in utilitarian religion's false promise of self-fulfillment. Instead, the solution is found in conforming our lives to Christ, and specifically to Christ crucified.


Don C said...

Well said brother!

Peter Carey+ said...

Thank you, this is great!!!

Peter Carey+

Fr. Reich said...

GooD stuff brother. I've given a good bit of thought lately to the run through Judges as it relates to what you wrote...

plsdeacon said...

In the Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis calls this "Christianity and...." Christianity starts off as primary, but it is practiced, not because it is true, but because it makes such good arguments for (fill in the blank). Christianity becomes a means to a human goal - inclusion, care for the poor, government socialism, laize faire economics, building homeless shelters, home schooling, transforming society, setting yourself apart from society or whatever the cause de jure is.

The only end that Christianity should be a means to is the end of union with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. All other ends are idolatry. Now this does not mean that we shouldn't work for a transformed society, but that we should realize that a transformed society is a by product of a society turned to God in faith.

Phil Snyder